The Good Pencil Company’s John-Erik Jahnsen
The Good Pencil Company is exactly like its name. Good. For every pencil the Utah-based pencil company sells, one is donated to a teacher in need.
Kevue spoke with the founder, John-Erik Jahnsen, to learn more about their pencils, current projects, and lengthy list of socially-conscious business certifications.
The Good Pencil Company started while I was working on my MBA from Utah State University. I had spent the semester working with Cotopaxi, another B-Corp here in Utah, and learning more about corporate social responsibility. As a project for a business ethics class, I created this fictitious company (what would eventually become The Good Pencil Company) to help teachers. It sort of turned into a business opportunity, and a few years later, here we are.
My wife was a teacher at the time, and she had to pay for her own school supplies. Actually, most teachers do. Demographics don’t matter. Pretty much every public school teacher pays for their school supplies, no matter what zip code they’re from in the US.
We use Forest Stewardship Council certified wood for our pencils. That means the wood is certified to come from sustainably managed forests that can be regrown and reharvested. This reduces our environmental impact a lot, especially compared to other pencils companies.
Right now, our packaging is compostable. It’s made out of wood pulp fibers, but it still looks like plastic, so people don’t always get it. The biggest problem is that if this packaging is in a high heat situation— like a super hot warehouse— it starts to degrade.
One of our climate-neutral partners works with a company out of Asia that makes a plastic-like film that dissolves in hot water. It doesn’t have the same susceptibility to heat as our compostable packaging does, so we’re working with them right now to see if we can rethink our packaging. We’re always finding new and better ways of doing things.
Outside of pencils, we have a few other products like lunch bags, backpacks, and pencil cases. We’re even getting into crayons. Currently, we’re working on a reusable water bottle project with MiiR.
We started with a 1-for-1 donation system, where one pencil donated for every pencil that we sell. While that works great for teachers who need supplies, there are many organizations we want to support that don’t necessarily need pencils. The 1-for-1 thing didn’t make sense for them, so we created themed pencils. We take whatever the cost would be for the pencil we would have donated through 1-for-1, and make a monetary donation for that amount instead.
There are many organizations that are not as large that are still doing great things in the community. We stopped looking at the big guys and started looking more locally. It’s been cool to get to know new people in our local community.
Our B-Corp certification is an important part of what we do. Not only do we get to be a part of like-minded businesses, but we can show our customers what we believe in. The B-Corp community has been a place for us to learn from people who have been doing this longer.
1% for the Planet was a continuation of our environmental initiatives. Pencils are made out of wood, so we wanted to make sure we were positively impacting the environment. Last year, B-Corp asked companies to commit to the UN’s goal of being climate-neutral by 2030. We were one of the first 100 companies to receive a Climate Neutral Certification. It was a lot of fun to be a part of that.
We also support groups like Carbon Fund and Eden’s Reforestation Project, which is helping reforest Madagascar. 90% of Madagascar’s forests have been lost due to human activity, so they hire locals to plant mangrove forests. They pay them a living wage and show them how they can prosper from the forests.
We started the company to help schools, and now we’ve hit our 20,000th donated pencil! We target Title I schools that are primarily lower-income. Education is such an essential part of breaking the poverty cycle, so we want to be a part of that. Every little bit helps.
While we can’t provide every school the supplies they need, even small donations can make a difference. Once, a teacher was so appreciative of 50 pencils, which was crazy to us because it’s just 50 pencils! Now, she can use that money towards something else she needs.
COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced. We loved getting face-to-face with customers at farmer’s markets, and obviously, we haven’t been able to do that this year. They’re just as much a chance to sell pencils, as they are a marketing opportunity to build awareness around what we do. We’ve even had people that didn’t need pencils but still handed us money because they loved what we were doing. We were able to put all of that towards donating pencils.
As a small company, getting the word out is always a challenge. When we first started, we spent a ton of money on advertising, and our return-on-investment was pretty low. We found that getting out in the communities got us much further than spending money on social media ads.
Our mission for the year was to have a larger retail presence. We’ve worked with several individual mom-and-pop stores, and we were in a couple of physical stores and websites. We’re very similarly priced to other high-quality pencils, but we have all those other benefits that they don’t. That’s something we are currently working towards.
I do speaking engagements where I talk to college students, business leaders, and pretty much anyone who will listen to me. I always tell them to look into groups like the B-Corp movement or 1% For the Planet. Joining them was probably the best thing we’ve done. We don’t look at it as a cost, but instead as a marketing expense.
Reach out to find ways you can get involved. Networking really helps, and I always tell business owners they need to get connected with like-minded businesses. It’s how we’ve met so many companies to partner with on cool projects.
For example, we got to with MPowerd, another B-Corp, on a project for Puerto Rico. A lot of the schools got knocked out by the hurricanes, so we were able to send 1,500 pencils. We didn’t realize that many schools are in small towns and only have 10 to 15 students in total. We thought that 1,500 pencils wouldn’t help an entire Puerto Rican community, but it actually made a big impact.
I think when you’re in this community, you see others making headway, and you say, I want to do that! In the Good Pencil Company office, we switched everything to be more sustainable. Instead of single-use dishes and cups, we have reusable ones available. In my family, we’ve switched over to reusable bags instead of single-use plastic. I’m currently looking to change my gas-powered car for an electric vehicle. It was weird at first to make these changes, but it’s possible for anyone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.